By Parker Marie Molloy
Originally published on Advocate.com March 29 2014 5:15 PM ET
Earlier this month, RuPaul's Drag Race featured a segment titled, "Female or She-male." The segment's use of the antitransgender slur was widely panned as transphobic. In the days that followed, a number of publications — including The Advocate — ran pieces documenting the online backlash aimed at the show, Logo TV, and media advocacy organization GLAAD.
The show has long been viewed by some transgender individuals as transphobic, making use of slurs explicitly labeled as "defamatory" in GLAAD's trangender media reference guide. For his part, RuPaul has long defended the use of such slurs — specifically the word "tranny" — going so far as to speak out against celebrities who have apologized for public use of the word in a 2012 Huffington Post interview.
"It's ridiculous! It's ridiculous! I love the word 'tranny,'" RuPaul told Huff Po when asked his opinion on Lance Bass apologizing for using the word. "I hate the fact that he's apologized. I wish he would have said, 'F-you, you tranny jerk!'"
Nearly two weeks after the "She-male" episode first aired, the producers of RuPaul's Drag Race issued a statement responding to allegations of transphobic rhetoric, while media watchdog organization GLAAD also provided insight into the work it's been doing behind the scenes with Logo and Drag Race.
"We delight in celebrating every color in the LGBT rainbow," the show's executive producers wrote. "When it comes to the movement of our trans sisters and trans brothers, we are newly sensitized and more committed than ever to help spread love, acceptance and understanding.
The channel which hosts RuPaul's Drag Race, Viacom-owned Logo TV, also responded to criticism, promising to improve its coverage of trans individuals, though stopping short of admitting any wrongdoing.
"We have heard the concerns around this segment," Logo's statement reads. "We are committed to sharing a diverse range of trans stories across all of our screens and look forward to featuring positive and groundbreaking stories of trans people in the future."
GLAAD followed up this morning, issuing a statement explaining its relative silence on the issue since the controversial episode first aired.
"The morning after the segment aired GLAAD staff reached out to Logo and shared our own concerns, as well as the feedback we heard from the trans community," writes GLAAD's associate director of communications, Nick Adams. "We also talked directly to the producers of RuPaul's Drag Race."
The blog post continued, responding to some criticism that GLAAD did not publicly respond to the problematic statement in a timely manner:
"The mistakes made in this segment should not be repeated. Words are important and have tremendous power. Since 1999 we have stated in our Media Reference Guide that anti-trans slurs are defamatory: 'These words only serve to dehumanize transgender people and should not be used.' The network and the show's producers heard that from us — and from those of you who spoke up. It's a message that GLAAD staff (trans and cis) have shared with countless LGB and straight producers, reporters, celebrities, and media executives.
Some writers and trans advocates questioned our entire commitment to trans people because we did not post about this issue on our site immediately. Why was there not an immediate post? We know from past experience that dialogue and education are the most effective ways to create substantive and lasting change in the media, and today's statements are the beginning of new conversations with this network and this show.
Speaking out against certain words is only one part of creating a safer and more just world for trans people. Reaching that goal will require telling the stories of trans people in a way that destroys stereotypes and humanizes our existence. GLAAD is committed to telling those stories.
We will continue to work with trans women who have gained visibility through their inclusion on RuPaul's Drag Race — women like Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly Hillz. We will work with Logo as they follow through on their commitment to share diverse and groundbreaking stories of trans women and men. We will continue working to create more opportunities in all media (mainstream and LGBT) for trans people to talk about the beauty and diversity within our community.
We hope you will join us in our other current campaigns to help the first trans woman perform at Carnegie Hall, end discrimination against trans women at Crossfit, and bring mainstream media attention to the Trans 100.
Culture-changing work is a marathon, not a sprint. The specific details of GLAAD's work with the media are not always visible, but our commitment to fair and accurate representations of trans people in news and entertainment media is unwavering."
In a personal blog post Saturday, GLAAD board cochair and best-selling author Jennifer Finney Boylan expressed mixed feelings about what has become a very contentious series of events:
"I wanted to write a few words about RuPaul’s Drag Race, and GLAAD’s pushback against the defamatory language used on that program last week.
I write here not in my official capacity as GLAAD’s co-chair of the board, but as an individual.
First off, I want to thank all of you for the support you have shown me as this story has developed. The encouragement you showed me made a big difference.
Looking at the statement released by the show’s production company today, as well as the one from the LOGO network, I feel there are reasons to celebrate, as well as things that disappoint me. In any case, there is plenty of work still lying ahead.
I can say that I see today’s statements as a beginning of what I hope is a long process. Quite frankly, it had better be.
That RuPaul and company say that they are 'newly sensitized' to the complexity of trans peoples’ lives is pleasant. I am hoping we’ll see more evidence of this as we move forward.
But this statement did seem to me to be something of a non-apology, and that leaves me dispirited. 'Newly sensitized' is great— but you had to not be listening very hard to trans women in the first place to have produced a segment like this and been blind to the way it would be received.
The discourse around trans lives has, in many ways, moved on past RuPaul and this show. I can say this even while celebrating the energy in drag that so many of us applaud.
But trans women’s noble, complex, difficult, joyous lives should not be confused with the lives of drag performers, and this simple fact seems to elude many of the folks behind this program. This gruesome episode represented a real tipping point for lots of trans people, who have grown weary of their lives being reduced to a cartoon.
A stronger statement was what I had hoped for, and, given the very long time it seemed to take to deliver this statement, seemed rather anemic to me.
A thing that’s very positive, though, is that trans people’s voices were at least heard here, even if the results were not as dramatic as we had wished. It was the pressure that trans people exerted since that execrable segment aired that got LOGO’s attention, not to mention the pressure that GLAAD kept on them.
GLAAD’s work began the day after the show first aired. We chose to conduct this work out of the public eye, in hopes of producing results. We do that all the time; being quiet while we allow our staff to do the work has been very successful for us in the past.
I’m cheered by the statement LOGO made that they will be airing stories, in the future, that shows the complexities of all kinds of trans peoples’ lives. I look forward to seeing those shows.
More important to me is a commitment LOGO made that is not reflected in their public statement — that they are not going to using the word 't——' on any of their programming again, going forward. It will be GLAAD’s responsibility to hold them to their word.
They’ve also committed to putting an end to other anti-trans language on their network.
So those things feel like wins to me. The wan official statements are discouraging; I am hoping that what we’ll see from here on out shows that LOGO did hear trans peoples voices, as amplified by GLAAD, this last week.
This is, to coin a phrase, not your father’s GLAAD, and this is not the work that was being done a decade ago. One reason why I think we’ve been able to make a little progress is that GLAAD is now largely run by trans people. We occupy positions from staff to volunteers to the board of directors, including its national co-chair, which is me. These are our lives we are talking about; the people demeaned by incidents like this one are the men and women who work here. And other cis staff members have been working for trans rights for years and years now. I am proud of the board and staff for their passion.
You can learn about just some of the highlights of GLAAD’s work on trans media representations here, and on our blog here.
So like I said, it’s a mixed bag for me, especially after all the many, many hours of work— but in the end the most important thing is this: This marks a beginning, not an end.
Thanks to everyone. I promise to keep the pressure on, and to keep working for the goals we all share. For me, this is personal."